That Was a Time

That Was a Time

Striking Steel: Solidarity Remembered
by Jack Metzgar
Temple University Press, 2000, 264 pp., $22.95 paper

On November 7, 1959, bowing to an injunction upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court, the United Steelworkers (USW) ended—116 days after it started—one of the largest strikes in U.S. history. Without union-paid strike benefits, more than five hundred thousand steelworkers had stayed out for four months and shut down nearly 90 percent of the nation’s steelmaking capacity. It was a massive display of solidarity rooted in a working-class culture that subsumed unionism, and it won the day. U.S. Steel Corporation and eleven other major producers abandoned their attempt to challenge union power on the shop floor and came to terms on a new industry-wide agreement.

It was a different time. Ronald Reagan had not yet demonstrated how to break a strike and decertify a union by hiring strikebreakers. American mills still dominated the world steel market. The USW still bargained on an industry-wide basis (though this structure was beginning to crack). But only twenty years later, in the 1980s, the union culture that Jack Metzgar describes so vividly in Striking Steel: Solidarity Remembered had no defense against a new economic order. Steel towns like Johnstown, Pa., where he grew up, lost their mills and fell into deep decay.

Practically everything that Metzgar writes about has vanished, leaving flawed memories and blurry outlines in the historical record. As a result, not only the 1959 steel strike but most accomplishments of unions in the 1950s have been ignored or downplayed by historians and many in the New Left. “Big Labor” is not a pejorative term for Metzgar; it did exist, to the betterment of society in general, but now it is being expunged from national memory. Striking Steel is, among other things, a persuasive argument against this willful and pernicious blanking out.

The story of the 1959 strike is the central narrative in the book. Radiating from this core are meditations on several related issues, including workplace relations, social class, and historical memory, along with fragments of a memoir. A photo montage on the cover shows a shadowy steel mill, an onion-domed church, a grim-looking mill worker in a hard hat, and a family of four outside their home in what obviously is a mill town. But this is not a typical memoir filled with bleak or charming scenes of mill-town life. Metzgar is not a descriptive writer. I can’t see Johnstown in the text.

What I do see are sharply drawn profiles of relationships inside a working-class family and a marvelously complex description of union culture and work practices in a 1950s steel mill. Metzgar’s father, Johnny Metzgar, was a semi-skilled machinist and USW grievanceman in the Johnstown Works of U.S. Steel Corp. He was the quintessential shop steward who did not hate bosses but understood...

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